Human InstinkzDesign Research, 2018—ongoing
Human Instinkz (HI) is a cross-disciplinary, design-led research practice which asks how we might investigate our relationship to the sensory, physical environments, spaces, bodies at various scales and how knowledge gained could be used to regain a sense of connection in a time of virtual presence?
Tools for connecting that are often invisible to us such as the position of our bodies, the color of the walls, the height of our desks, our quiet perception of empty space, are processed without our conscious awareness, leaving a subtle but significant impact on our attention and behavior.
“If we want to change our thinking, we have to change our tools.”
Previous investigations have been in contexts of work, specifically in in-person meetings of the administrative staff at The New School and in organization-wide online meetings of a virtual work-team environment at The Engine Room.
The Engine Room
Virtual All-Team-Calls | 2017 - 2018
The New School
Administrative Meetings | 2017 - 2018
A case study
Sensory Methods of Group Connection
Initially interested in the greater meaning of what it means to be an organic human being living in an industrial time, the investigations began in a team of three by observing how the group dynamic changed while moving from a windowless workspace to Washington Square Park. Walking around the neighborhood led to communication and creativity flow more smoothly. A seemingly simple concept, Human Instinkz was founded, a small research initiative with the hopes of improving team meetings for other humans across the globe.
The research methods are non-traditional, innovative, and oriented towards the human work meeting experience. Leveraging the nonconscious by tweaking the team’s sensory environment in ways that foster connection. The aim is to better understand how to better utilize the unique sensory abilities of human individuals and groups to improve overall connection. Human Instinkz believes that the broader implications of the research would challenge the notion “normal” of team meetings to ones that consider each member’s sensory experience not as a minor detail, but as an affordance for more humanness to the workplace and more meaningful connections among the people that work there.
As digital technology has become more crucial to collaboration in the workplace, feelings of disconnection have also become more prevalent. Perhaps this was to be expected, as one of the leading theorists of distributed cognition, Edwin Hutchins, claims “the computer was made in the image of the formal manipulations of abstract symbols. And the last 30 years of cognitive science can be seen as attempts to remake the person in the image of the computer”. Today, the intelligent systems one uses are not so many extensions of human intelligence, but rather systems “from which the human actor has been removed.”
Complicating a study of how current technology shapes one, is the fact that our tools, when in use, often disappear from view. Take the example of Heidegger’s hammer: while engaged in the act of trouble-free hammering, the skilled carpenter is not conscious of the hammer. The hammer becomes phenomenologically transparent. In other words, one behaviors are the results of non-conscious processes of sensory pattern analysis. Given the difficulties of studying these processes, research that incorporates nonconscious processes into their core arguments remains relatively scant, despite longstanding interest in organizational psychology and organizational behavior. Taking on this challenge through the lens of design, and taking seriously designer Allan Wexler’s call to action that “we have to change our tools to change our thinking” this research emerged.
Additionally, to rely on Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio claim that, at the core of the consciousness of a human actor, is a system of feelings, rather than abstract computations, which help one learn and act in the world. This system of feelings, or internal experiences, is formed from learned relationship with external sensory cues. Therefore, this project strives to focus on the sensory engagements of the techno-socio-political dynamics of a meeting, considering an expanded notion of our sensory experiences, including the position of our bodies, the color of the walls, and the height of the desks, with an eye towards how they might be shifted in subtle ways to allow for vitality, presence, and connectedness to emerge.
During an internal meeting, the core team experienced a feeling of process-paralysis. Leaving the small dark room to think outside helped to explore how unconscious, emotional and non-verbal influences allowed to think differently.
How might elements of your sensorial experience influence our behaviors, emotions, and attention? How does media (or tools) impact our ability to sense a broader connection? Is there a loss of human instinct through a notion of disconnectedness between cognition and behavior?
A lot of these initial questions have led to future experiments. This very first personal experience fostered a continuous process of design-led research, which will be described in the following.
HI’s diversity of professional backgrounds in Anthropology + Film, Neuroscience + Fashion, and Communications + Design allowed to design an ecosystem of methodological approaches.
The original context for inquiry is a team of 6 which work independently coordinating the different majors within the Art, Media, and Technology department at The New School. The meetings are weekly, last for an hour and are mostly for information passing. HI were told the sessions are not very engaging, feel very time consuming and not effective.
Conscious of the biases and the effects on group dynamics the research team might bring to the table, HI designed a process which removed themselves as much as possible from the research phase, to be able to understand the conditions of the meeting as uninfluenced as possible.
After gathering the data through hidden video and sound recordings, every five seconds were analyzed and observations were noted in an evaluation chart that was created beforehand. Observations were looking at each member individually and measured behavior like laughter, the usage of water bottles, technology, the times of speaking, group excitement, etc.
A lack of active engagement between the members was found. The manager was continually surveying while others looked at their screens. She took up the most physical space through gesturing while facilitating the meeting. Generally speaking, non-verbality by the team members, lack of interpersonal interaction and unconscious behavior towards fidgeting were initial findings.
To further understand the observations and the synthesis of the recordings the data got visualized through an animation that tracked the usage of technology and the eyesight of the manager. This also helped to make the findings more accessible to further conversations.
In the semi-structured interviews the catalog of questions was focusing on the mission of the meeting, the possible barriers preventing the achievement of the purpose, positives of what was working, and an ideal state of the sessions.
A participatory element, where each interviewee had to draw the connections between each member of the meetings, helped to prove assumptions about the group dynamics wrong.
Broadly speaking, some people are better connected than others. Showing the relationships people have to each other (the thicker the line, the stronger), this graph is citing the duration of employment and the professional roles the members have.
Focusing on the four areas described previously: purpose, barriers, positives, ideals was essential.
After four rounds of synthesis, two major insights were gained (2x2 below): Data points that were both “group” (right) and “professional” (bottom) were negative. Human “wisdom” (top) and knowledge, also described as “non-tool skills” were in the ideal and purpose. Few were personal, intimate, and individual. The insight is: personal, intimate, and individual interactions lead to positive group experience and cohesiveness. This may have been an assumption at that time, but further research and observations through videos showed that personal stories led to group laughter and therefore fostered positive group dynamics.
The central insight of the first meeting is the disconnect of participation as ideal and the lack of describing it as a barrier towards the engagement. Participation in the first meeting was extremely unbalanced.
Meeting 2 (with intervention)
“Most people don’t want to know they’re interconnected. Acknowledging interconnectedness is too much of a burden. It requires that we take responsibility for noticing how we affect other people, that we realize how our behaviors and choices impact others, even at a distance.”—Sarah Shulman, “Gentrification Of The Mind”
How might something that physically connects (tool) also emotionally connect the participants of the meeting? This question is based on the discrepancy between what the participants saw as a barrier and what actually happens in the session. The findings of the interviews were not matching with the observations during the recordings.
The new line of inquiry was asking: What are the invisible rules that govern this meeting? How might we adjust the senses to unconsciously change the way participants relate to each other? How might we introduce an autoethnographic tool to allow self-reflection and participation to explore a shared personal experience and connect it to the broader context of cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings?
Quoted from the research document: “What if they all have to be literally connected with strings? — How can we use the literal to create new meaning?” This led to the decision to run a provotype interested in investigating and visualizing the notion of interconnectedness, power structures, and group dynamics. It is kept simple, exploring a literal connection by using elastic rubber bands, knotting them together and joining the wrists of each participant to the larger string. Each participant could directly feel the gentle actions of the others.
After assessing the second video recording, the result was an increase in gestures of each individual, more eye contact, more general arousal, and laughter. Laughter was louder and in comparison to the first meeting, the manager didn’t make large gestures, what could be called a “leveling” effect. Quantitative analysis revealed:
- Increase of laughter 42 times
- 35 times more verbal exchanges and personal stories
- Moments of collective joy raised to 5 times
Virtual Team Meeting
Further research passively observed an All Team Call (ATC) over the virtual platform that The Engine Room used to meet monthly. In the first ATC, all participants were asked to take a photograph of their immediate physical surroundings and to write to about their sensory experience.
Semi-structured interviews were strategical with pairs of team members and opened up conversations between them around emotional comfort in calls.
- Silence was deemed unproductive, and there was an effort to fill it each time during the ATC.
- People were muted most of the ATC which made the leadership nervous not receiving immediate feedback.
- The meeting was highly structured, allowing little space for emergent conversations, although these were desired.
- Video is preferred for connection and is used more often, but too intense.
- Automatically visualize faces/spaces of speakers during voice calls.
- Feelings of disembodiment “Sometimes I leave feeling like an Android pretending to be human saying all the things that a human is supposed to say”
- Purely social solutions are unsuccessful. A productivity aspect is necessary to long term social connection.
In a second ATC observation, an adapted approach was applied: Asking for sketches which depict their feeling in the current ATC versus a feeling they would like to feel ideal ATC feeling.
The leadership also incorporated a new exercise into this call which happened on a shared board where each of the participants gave kudos to each of the teams. The leadership was trying to incorporate more emotional activities into the meeting structure, a space that the research showed had been missing in the past.
Siloed — Most employees only feel connected through leadership rather than horizontally, with colleagues across teams.
Grounded Connection — TER wants to feel grounded through something tangible, an image, a touch, an emotion.
- How might we design environments that shift our senses, feelings, attention to feel more connected with others?
- Are there ways to engage the body to allow for a more connected experience through the virtual?
After the initial interviews and observations of the second ATC, a new framework was created that could explain the research lens concerning the efforts already being made by TER:
- Shared tools — grounding abstract thoughts through tangible tools
- Shared emotions — grounding abstract connection through emotional sharing
- Shared sensory space — sharing nonconscious spatial, auditory, sensory elements of connection
Our design concepts for this space
- Idea 1 — Create shared soundscape
- Idea 2 — Mirror virtual dance party
- Idea 3 — Co-create imagined shared space
Although never realized, the design concepts were presented to the virtual team and very well-received. They are now open-source activities that may be used to strengthen future team interactions.
Importance to greater work culture
Beyond the significance of our research to two teams that we worked with we see that Human Instinkz might shift the focus of team meetings to ones that consider new ways of thinking about the sensory possibilities which might aid in connection and engagement. We believe that the more significant implications of our research would challenge notions “normal” of team meetings to ones that consider each member’s sensory experience not as a trivial detail, but as an affordance for more humanness to the workplace and deeper connections among the people that work there.
To be continued… Please get in touch for further details and possible collaborations.
A collaboration with Daye Hwang and Megan Leigh Willy.
Special thanks to Nicole Anand, Julia Keseru, to everyone involved at The Engine Room, to the Art, Media & Technology administrative staff and to John Bruce at The New School.